The Dream Factory

For nearly forty years, a strange German couple has been photographing the great gray ghosts of 20th-century industry. But it's not so easy to see the "monumentary" in your own backyard.

If you follow either the railroad tracks or the river from Minneapolis to St. Paul you will run across all sorts of prototypical Becher material: the elevators and railroad yards just east of the University of Minnesota, the bleak industrial grid off I-94 and Highway 280, and the various moldering power plants and factories that are visible from any one of the bridges that crosses the Mississippi from Northeast all the way south to the Parkway. A drive down Hiawatha Avenue will take you past numerous constellations of warehouses and grain elevators, and if you continue out of town past the Veterans' Hospital and head down Highway 52 you'll roll through the spectacular and wretched sprawl of the Koch refinery, the whole mess crowded with details the Bechers would surely love.

Bernd and Hilla Becher

Ultimately, however, the problem with my field trip was that, while I had no problem finding source material for a great Becher photo everywhere I went, I couldn't quite translate what I was seeing into true Becher art. What these artists do, of course, isn't quite so easy as just looking at something carefully. A great photographer is a translator, and the Bechers translate everything they look at into their own language. Though I suddenly found myself seeing everything around me in Becher-like abstraction, I could never quite manage the atmosphere of those photos. I couldn't, for instance, get enough distance or crop the surrounding buildings or cars. And, damn it all to hell, I couldn't see in black and white. It was frustrating, because every day I would have these random and uncharacteristic shocks of the familiar: There's a Becher image! But, briefly fascinating as these bursts were, they were never even remotely as satisfying as the photographs themselves. I could read the language, apparently, but I couldn't speak it. Or something like that. I do know that the Bechers carried me away from myself and had me seeing things for a time, but, sadly, in the end they brought me back to the world and plopped me down right where I started.

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